What a difference a week makes. Last week, the town’s seniors were jubilant, basking in the county Legislature’s May 3 approval of a 15-year lease for the new senior center at the Lahey Pavilion at the Butterfield site. This week, a whole new set of problems has erupted after Thursday’s village Planning Board meeting, putting large parts of the project in jeopardy.
As the PCNR went to press, County Executive MaryEllen Odell, in an exclusive phone interview, said that the Planning Board’s delay is holding “everything” up. She questioned their motives, saying “I would suggest there’s something else going on.” And she said of the county’s lease for the senior center, “Until there’s (village) approval, I can’t execute the lease.”
Her comments came almost a week after Planning Board chair, Matt Francisco, said he believes more review is needed, a position he said results from the “advice of counsel.”
The Planning Board was unswayed by a standing-room only crowd last Thursday, almost all in support of the senior center. “The seniors over there deserve to be treated better and with much more respect than they’re receiving,” Odell said Tuesday.
In yet one more complication, developer Paul Guillaro is preparing to imminently file an Article 78 proceeding against the Village of Cold Spring over the Planning Board’s delaying tactics regarding the Lahey Pavilion, sources said. Lahey is to house the previously approved Cold Spring Post Office and the new senior center. If commenced, such a legal proceeding will almost certainly cost the village tens of thousands of dollars in unbudgeted legal fees. Asked directly Tuesday about legal action, Guillaro said it’s “very possible depending on what the outcome is.”
Separately, Putnam County and an ad hoc group of seniors are also said to be investigating either joining that legal action or filing their own.
The rapid-fire developments came after seniors, top county officials, Guillaro and a number of concerned residents all urged immediate action at Thursday’s meeting, which was for planners to review an amended site plan application that seeks the change of use for Lahey, the only existing building in the Butterfield project along Route 9D. Almost all in attendance said that a shift of tenants among the previously approved buildings is actually a relatively minor change and will be to the benefit of all, including speedy completion of a new senior center. The change of use involves the medical offices moving to Butterfield’s Building 2 and the senior center moving to Lahey, as well as the Post Office.
But the Planning Board, which has had the formal application since April 7, was having none of it regarding quick action. The meeting ended without resolution and with more delay on the horizon.
In fact, the move of the senior center from Building 2 to the Lahey Pavilion was first mentioned as a likely prospect in this newspaper in August 2015, and was solidified by November 2015, when county legislators initially gave their approval, something again reported by the PCNR (see timeline for additional details).
The disparate viewpoints came into sharp relief before the standing-room-only gathering at Village Hall. Only now, at the 11th hour – and after county lawmakers on May 3 finally approved a lease with Guillaro for a senior center at Lahey – is the Planning Board revisiting the matter, saying a new “parking table” is needed to act on the change of use at Lahey. Plans call for the interior to be gutted and renovated for the new Post Office and 6,000-square-foot senior center. The medical offices there now move to the new Building 2, thus making way for the renovation.
Francisco, who is familiar with construction through his work as a Chief Technology Officer at ABCO Refrigeration Supply Corp, in Long Island City, appeared visibly nervous and repetitive when he opened the meeting. He said multiple times he was simply following “the advice of counsel,” even though village attorney John W. Furst of the law firm of Catania, Mahon, Milligram & Rider, PLLC, actually works at the behest of the Village Board and, in this case, the Planning Board as led by Francisco. Furst bills $185 per hour; an exact tally of his time spent on Butterfield isn’t yet available, Village Clerk Mary Saari said Monday.
The commotion on Thursday evening comes down, in many respects, to a battle of the lawyers – Furst and the Butterfield project’s attorney, Steve Barshov. They disagreed on their respective interpretations of the code involved with switching building uses. Barshov stated he believes the Planning Board is trying to stall the project and reconsider it entirely. “You are looking to reopen this,” Barshov told Francisco. The lawyer said the switch was a simple matter of previously approved uses shifting among previously approved buildings. At one point he said to Francisco, “This is ignoring the plain language of the Village Code. I don’t care whose advice is being followed,” a reference to Furst and Francisco’s reliance on “the advice of counsel.” Francisco had also said he was “risk averse.”
The Planning Board members stuck to their guns, saying they were doing their job in reviewing the application. Member Judith Kepner Rose said she was just seeing the application and its changes, even though it was submitted April 7.
Francisco inaccurately stated that 60-foot postal trailers would be unloaded for the Post Office; however, Guillaro later corrected him and said his lease with the USPS said 35-foot trucks at a maximum would be in use, and that the size of the trucks and their time on the site was limited by the contract. He also argued with Francisco, telling him “nobody ever told us we had to file an application” for what he thought was a minor change.
Guillaro noted that he had complied with a community charrette and a number of other meetings and he was seeking “to accommodate two needs” sought by the community, space for a new senior center and space for a new post office. If the Post Office can’t be accommodated at Butterfield, it may leave entirely (it’s now in a temporary trailer by the side of Foodtown). And a new senior center has been needed for years; Odell said it had been in review by the county for at least 10 years.
Guillaro told Francisco and the planners that the Post Office sought a change from Building 2 (the new construction along Route 9D) to Lahey because the slope where a loading dock was to be would not work. Queried by Francisco why this didn’t come up sooner, Guillaro told him the Postal Service didn’t want to enter into serious talks until it knew Cold Spring was actually moving ahead, given the long history of false starts.
Francisco and planners also said several times that Guillaro could move ahead under his initial approval, effectively withdrawing his April 7 application. That would lead to the perhaps unusual situation of the senior center being in the basement level of Building 2, with a considerable walk for seniors to get there and the possibility the senior transportation bus would have to back up, regarded as a significant safety hazard. A parade of concerned residents, county officials and seniors outlined the need for immediate action and the rationale for using Lahey for a senior center.
Pat Sheehy, director of the county Office of Senior Resources, said she came to the meeting, “a little bit outraged; I feel that this project is being held up for what I don’t see is a substantial change,” She said the need is great and that only about 40 seniors can be accommodated now for meals at the current “Friendship Center” at the American Legion. “I think it’s unfair to your community to have these kinds of delays,” she said. She said by moving to Lahey, the county was simply trying to reduce the distance seniors, many of them frail, would have to walk to enter the senior center.
Fred Pena, Putnam County Commissioner of Highways and Facilities, relayed to the board that plans for the senior center are on the launch pad. “We have gone through a lengthy RFP process to select the architectural firm,” Pena said. A visibly surprised Francisco said, “You did an RFP?” as he took a note. Pena said that moving the location of the senior center made it a “safer operation for our seniors.”
County Legislator Carl Albano said he was speaking on his own behalf, but he represented the view of many of legislative colleagues. He pleaded with the planners, “To delay this is just crazy.” He remembered that during the SEQRA (environmental review) process that the planning board’s special counsel said it was done correctly. “Weeks go by, time goes by, these things are time sensitive,” he said. “If you get into the winter season, we’ll lose a year. Don’t delay this; it’s really a shame to do that.”
Mayor Dave Merandy – who said he was speaking as a resident – defended the Planning Board’s inaction. He became more animated as he spoke. His voice grew louder. Eventually, his comments became a diatribe, and he blasted Paul Guillaro and Butterfield Realty for the banners on the outside fence surrounding the property that said “coming in 2016.” He urged seniors to blame the developer that it’s not completed yet – but he failed to mention that the project was mired in village bureaucracy even now. He also said the Senior Center was being used to “bully us to make a move” in regard to Butterfield moving ahead.
Vinny Tamagna, who currently heads the county’s transit efforts and was previously a county legislator when Butterfield project was conceived, reminded all that central to the project, from a public benefit standpoint, were “saving the Post Office and creating a place for our seniors.” He said of the parking, “Those same parking spots are still there.” And he reiterated Sheehy’s point that Lahey had better bus access than the 70-foot walk Building Two would require. He also lives next to the Butterfield site.
With all the public comment, the hour and a half meeting was as passionate as it was contentious. Trustees Marie Early and Steve Voloto, HDRB member and Deputy Chair Kathleen Foley and Stephanie Hawkins were also in attendance. No Philipstown Town Board representatives were present.
Another moment of drama during the evening came when Foley erupted, criticizing the project and questioning why these issues were being discussed now instead of in the past. You can view the outburst and the entire meeting at PCNR.com. Foley, her hands shaking, said she was left questioning the integrity of everything, from SEQRA to the engineers and their licenses. She told the seniors to ask the same questions, and passionately stated she was not against the seniors, after one senior accused her of hating the elderly. Foley voted against Butterfield when it was before the HDRB.
It should be noted that Francisco, Hawkins, Foley, Merandy, and planners Arne Saari and Rose have all made public comments against the existence of development, and have fought to stop it going forward. Those sentiments appear to be now playing out.
The meeting ended with no immediate resolution; a motion was made to speak with the attorney in closed session, but the public meeting was closed. The Senior Center site plan amendment regarding the change of use is still under review. Meanwhile, the next planning meeting is May 26, at Village Hall, 7pm. The village and Philipstown’s seniors still wait. They came seeking immediate approval for the shift to keep the project moving, but the cluster of naysayers on the Planning Board appears reluctant as it gives even more thought to parking. In the meantime, the multiple moving parts that make up the project could easily come off the rails.
Thursday night, Francisco said the Board is following the advice of the village attorney: a site plan amendment is needed because the use of Lahey, currently medical offices, is changing to encompass the Senior Center and post office. He also argued that the Planning Board does not have the legislative jurisdiction to change the previous approvals. He did, however, state that he didn’t think this was a minor change, but said he was only one vote of five.
Francisco said that they are reviewing the application, which they have recently received, which was also the argument of member Rose. Rose stated she supported the Senior Center, but was concerned about traffic and safety within the development. Barshov said he was happy to take a look at traffic and safety concerns, but did not believe the board should look at parking.
Francisco said a new parking arrangement (parking table) is needed for the Planning Board to review. He made no comment regarding the seniors or any support for them.
Regarding the parking, Francisco said, “I understand people don’t like the answer.”
Former Trustee Airinhos Serradas spoke in favor of the project, as did Butterfield neighbor John Cronin. He is a highly regarded environmentalist, and has studied Butterfield in considerable detail. He said no harm would be done by moving the Senior Center to Lahey Pavilion, and that far greater harm would come from delaying the project further. A senior, Shirley Norton, thanked everyone and even said she appreciated the board’s work, but wants to see the Senior Center become a reality.
Most of the audience agreed with Barshov, fearing the review would reopen the approval of the development entirely.
While Francisco argued it was not the Planning Board’s intention to “thwart” the Center, he questioned the need to change the buildings at all.
Barshov said “changes are made all the time to applications,” and disagreed strongly with the village attorney. He stated the board is “ignoring plain language,” and there is no reason to delay the project further by looking at the parking situation and that there is no code against the building changes. Barshov argued there is no change to the square footage.
The village attorney stated, however, that in the end, the decision was ultimately the Planning Board’s to make. Francisco stated numerous times he did not want to go against the advice of the attorney, which would seem to make for a circular analysis.
“Here we are at the end,” Barshov said. Bystanders applauded his remarks.
Video of the meeting is available at pcnr.com.
This story was reported by Kim Hyatt, Dennis Mazzuca, Tim Greco and Douglas Cunningham.